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Commonality- On Opening a New Gallery Space

The Ithaca Commons- a pedestrian-friendly shopping area in downtown Ithaca, NY is where we've opened a new gallery, North Star Fine Art Gallery on the Ithaca Commons. It is a beautiful space in a wonderful historic building, dating to 1865- the same year as our house on Snyder Hill Road. The Commons is a section of State Street that was closed to vehicular traffic back in 1974 to create an open piazza-like space. In its center on the pavement there are some vestiges of trolley tracks and the sculptural representations of planets that are an homage to native son, Carl Sagan.

I've long seen the advantages and appeal of having a gallery (and Studio) in a more central location with actual foot traffic. Although during the course of the week the pedestrians and shoppers can be rather thin. On the upside, this allows me to still be painting in the back of the gallery. Our (other) gallery that is a two-story wing of our house, by comparison is smaller and the drop in traffic is virtually nil. There have been some major sales however, from casual visitors who just happen to drop in. Once a couple jogging past, noticed our sign and stopped in to purchase a major work. Another time, I met a woman while bicyclying up Snyder Hill and she turned out to have a serious interest in collecting art.

Having a studio in a market district or shopping area, like the Commons, has some parallels to the way Renaissance bodegas or workshops of artists were set up in places like Florence. There are still some stuidos there in Rome and Florence today where the artists still work in the windows so the public can view work in process. We can imagine the famous Renaissance predecessors like, the Verrochio bodega where Leonardo trained and collaborated or the Ghirlandaio workshop where Michelangelo got his start.

Above- The new gallery interior with the first show of landscapes, townscapes and still life work.

The space on the Commons is well lit with track lighting and the walls were ready for art. Linda often lamented the way our gallery in our home has too many paintings about. Well, I am productive and it is my studio too, so there are always paintings in the works in various stages of completion. So, to see the work displayed with ample space to let each piece breathe is especially gratifying. And hanging this first show, titled "Mostly Mansards and Lucent Landscapes" was like curating a small museum retrospective. There is an alcove for still life work, two mythological works and a couple of portraits that are interspersed with the depictions of historic architecture.

While I had long entertained the idea of opening a downtown space the reservations have always centered around the drawbacks of being tied to the store. Pursuing the beauty of light on any given day will certainly be not as easy now. It has been my practice to head for the muse when the light looks particularly conducive. I am sure a way around this will be found- maybe just putting a sign up- "Out seeking the muse."

Above- A large oil painting depicting the Home Dairy Store, a bakery on the Commons- circa 1984. It was located in an historic building that is now the home of the Yellow Deli.

Being part of the vibrant downtown community is certainly appealing at this point. Many of the downtown merchants and shopkeepers have stopped in to extend a welcome. I first met Tim Gray, the owner of a comic book store nearby, when I had a kiosk gallery in Center Ithaca when I first came to town. And a woman that I did a portrait of back in 1981 also stopped in yesterday. So in a way, it is a return, a homecoming. There are about a dozen other galleries downtown and they mostly participate in the First Friday events of each month. When we had our grand opening last month the turn out was great and the feedback from everyone was very supportive and positive.

My other long-time involvement on the Commons was showing on a regular basis at the Susan Titus Gallery- which was located on the opposite end, the east side. When Susan passed away a few years ago, she was missed by many. That gallery was rather small but it was a productive stint with many works sold over a ten year period through Susan's efforts. Susan had planned to be there just for a Christmas season- but maintend the gallery for the better part of 20 years. One of the tragic occurences there at the gallery and at the adjacent Simeon's Restaurant was when a tractor trailer lost its brakes and crashed through both buildings. Matt Peterson, Susan's life partner was sitting in the gallery when the brick wall collapsed with the front of the truck plunging through. This wasn't the first time that this intersection was the scene of runaway vehicles and crashes. We sell Susan's art at our gallery on Snyder Hill.

Above- First Friday at the North Star- featured the gypsy swing of Zingology- great for dancing and listening.

There have been some changes to the Commons over the past 40 years- some of them received with very mixed reviews. A slew of new high rises have sprung up and the destructions of nearby historic homes on West State Street and elsewhere is dismaying. How could this happen in Ithaca of all places? The highrises have been encouraged in the name of population density as some are hotels and apartment buildings. Still, the character of the town seems compromised. Some incredibly beautiful buildings have been razed, but this is not a new phenomenon as urban renewal has long history. Just today I was walking to the east side of the Commons and I noticed the large hulk of a building. It once housed a Rothschilds Store and an Iszards department store and other venues. But earlier in the 20th century is was a magnificent four story hotel with a dignified beauty. If some of these architectural gems were still here, Ithaca would be so much the better. Another such desecration, was on the corner of Seneca and Cayuga Streets where a magnificent Victorian manision once stood. It was replaced by the nondescript brick building for the former Women's Community Center. And it too has since been razed and now replaced with an equally banal apartment building.

There is also a lack of decorum or observation of rules on the Commons nowadays. There are ordinances about no smoking, no bike riding and no skateboards - but these are regularly disregarded. There was a major article in the Ithaca Times a few weeks ago about crime in Ithaca. The lack of police presence or enforcement of regulations, along with panhandling and vagrancy and open consumption of alcohol for extended periods of time all figured into the mix.

All in all, being a gallerist on the Commons is a positive experience. But how long will it last? Is the gallery a popup?- These are questions that we are sometimes asked asked I guess starting a popup is a thing. The anwser is not certain, but it could be here for 20 years- who knows?

To view a video - a guided tour of the new show at the North Star Fine Art- click on this link:


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